OMAHA, Neb. -- Team Heath McCormick didn’t have it easy.
At the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling, Team McCormick nearly saw its Olympic journey come to an end as it faced off against Team Todd Birr for the final spot in the playoffs.
McCormick defeated Birr, 8-6. Their reward? Facing three-time Olympian John Shuster and his team in a best-of-three playoff series that started just hours later.
Their momentum carried them through to another win, 5-3, bringing them from one loss away from elimination to one win away from a berth on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
“That was the way we were playing all week,” skip Heath McCormick said. “It’s been a long day. Woke up early and played a nice game, and obviously my guys played really, really well this game.”
Team Shuster blanked the first end and was lined up to have a huge second end before McCormick’s final shot took out three of his stones, setting up a steal and putting McCormick up 1-0. Shuster struck back in the third end with a point of his own, but McCormick added another in the fourth to go up 2-1.
The fifth end introduced some drama, as two stones were too close to call and the measuring device was required to determine the scoring. McCormick walked away with another point, the score sitting at 3-1. Shuster inched closer in the sixth with another point, but McCormick added another in the seventh to regain the two-point lead. Again, Shuster added a point in the eighth to continue trying to chip away but McCormick held firm once more and added a point of his own in the ninth.
“It’s a sign of a good game when both teams only score one point in an end,” McCormick said.
McCormick ended his team’s long day with an exclamation point in the 10th and final end, taking out two of Shuster’s stones with his last shot. Shuster, who had the hammer, conceded his final shot as it would be unable to prevent a loss, and the game was called at 5-3.
“Every now and then you run into a skip that just comes out and makes everything,” Shuster said. “When it comes down to this, it’s all about execution. We struggled a little bit with that. The speed was a little bit faster and straighter and we didn’t execute as well as we did the second half of the round robin.”
Despite Team McCormick’s early morning – and rather restless night before the sudden-death match against Team Birr – they appeared to not have lost a step before their playoff. They were not only familiar with the ice conditions and how their shots would play, but their momentum may have played a part in their victory over Team Shuster.
“Obviously we got some confidence from [the first win],” McCormick said. “It did make for a long day, but we got some rest in between and we felt like we were ready to go for tonight’s game.”
McCormick’s team consists of himself, Chris Plys, and Korey Dropkin and Tom Howell. McCormick is 41 and competing at his second U.S. Olympic Team Trials, and Plys is 31 and a 2010 Olympian. Dropkin and Howell, however, are 22 and 23, respectively, and both competing at their first Olympic trials, though they competed at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games together.
The veterans are pleased with how the young guns are standing up to the pressure.
“There’s lots of nerves. If you’re not nervous, you’re not living,” McCormick said. “Those young guys have handled everything really nicely, worked really hard the past two years on trying to stay in the moment and trying to – and we’re all guilty of it, all four of us have been guilty of it, of getting down or showing emotion at the wrong time. I’m proud of those guys.”
On the flip side is Shuster, a 2006 Olympic bronze medalist and 2016 world bronze medalist, who is currently one loss away from ending his streak of skipping the U.S. Olympic Men’s Curling Team at two. His team includes Tyler George, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and alternate Joe Polo. Landsteiner is a 2014 Olympian, while Polo was also on the team that won the United States' only Olympic curling medal in '06.
But Shuster has seen it all before and is unfazed by his team’s loss.
“We play in tournaments all the time where it’s win or go home,” Shuster said. “Our team’s been really extremely resilient in those times. We’ve gotten plenty of wins with our backs against the wall so it’s not anything new to us.”